Keep Human

It’s not long now until the kids start a new academic year.  And for me, September is also a new start, or restart to be precise.  Not only do I start a new job as a TA but I have to mark September, for this year at least, as a fresh start to my writing.  So far it has not been great and I’m ashamed to say my work in progress totals less than 5,000 words, albeit they have been rewritten several times in different voices, different POV etc.

But all is not lost, as I keep telling myself.  And thanks to my namesake Natalie Perry, a fellow SCBWI member, I am reignited with a passion to get my WIP off the ground and running (a bit faster at least).  Since Natalie posted a link last week to the podcasts from BBC Radio 4’s The Invisible College, I have been an avid listener.  Just 10 minutes long, they provide excellent advice and tips on writing and are an ideal partner on dog walks I have found.  In one walk I can get through maybe three podcasts and will have picked up numerous ideas and inspiration for my writing.

One in particular struck a chord.  Number 9, Keep Human.

This is about the ‘time in between’ your writing.  The time Noel Coward describes as a chance to ‘collect your thoughts’.  A time for socialising, reading new genres, seeing a bit of culture, basically getting out of the four walls where your last project kept you hidden.  And that is certainly what I have been doing these last few months.

In January, I finished my last manuscript: a YA novel set in post-apartheid South Africa, one which I pitched live at last year’s SCBWI conference in The Hook.  And the early months of this year were spent frantically submitting, waiting, submitting some more, waiting, all the time trying to get a new story off the ground.

But this podcast refreshed my outlook on the last few what I thought wasted months. Ok not wasted as such, as mum to three busy girls & two schnauzers and a wife, life generally interrupts any established flow to a writing schedule.  So, during this time, ideas for my story, or ‘seeds’ if you like have been germinating in my ‘mental compost’.

 

seedling-2163773_960_720

Fellow writers will recognise the frustrations in getting a new story up and running.  After spending years with Zola and her family, the protagonist from The Colour of Forgiveness, it is difficult to get in the mind of another teenage girl, from a different time and place, with different wants and needs.

But Tammy hasn’t been far from my mind, she’s always there, lingering in the background, her character developing with each new playlist put together for future dog walks, when my mind wanders back to the 1980’s (the setting for my WIP).  During these ‘dry’ months, the seed has grown into a sapling and is now developing into a young plant, with new scenes, actions and dialogue sprouting from the branches.

leaves-160960_960_720

In the Keep Human podcast, Cathy Fitzgerald talks about this dry period as a time to forget about writing.  It is a necessity for writers to have this time until they start to miss the blank page.  And that is where I am at.  I miss the feeling of knowing I have spent a suitable period in the chair at the keyboard, watching the words clock up in the left-hand corner.  Just completing this blog, (the first in 3 months) is an accomplishment.

And I don’t think I will be the only one itching to get back into it.  Many writers with children at home during the summer holidays will have struggled to put pen to paper/fingers on keyboard.  So, come on, the countdown has started.  Get the uniforms labelled and ironed, pencil cases sorted and bags packed, it’s time to get that story back up and running!

Advertisements

Light Amongst the Shadows

Following the terror of last week, some words came to me during a morning walk.

Warm sun cloaks my shoulders,

through the trees a soft breeze whispers

and birdsong cheers my heavy heart.

In between dark shadows

a brightness shines.

 

Miles away twenty-two roses cut,

their beauty still and silent

mourning.

Balloons stand tall

swishing and swaying

over a desolate, florid sea.

 

A blast so strong, so deadly

A hatred so deep

A mission so bloody.

Tearing at the heart of society.

 

Swelling inside,

a loss too painful to mention.

Falling tears,

wordless incomprehension.

 

Through the dark smoke, the hand

of a stranger reaches.

Amongst the screams, a gentle voice

soothing, questioning.

People, taxis, uniforms,

organisation among chaos.

 

You tore open our hearts

And out flowed the light.

 

And, tomorrow,

As the roses wilt and wither

Balloons deflate and sorrow lingers,

the dawn chorus ever lilting, sweet,

high amongst the trees.

Still growing at their roots,

the flowers and weeds.

 

The memories will fade  

over the hours and days

and pain in our hearts will remain.

Yet still, the sun will warm our shoulders

and shine.

Yet, still there will be

light amongst the shadows.

Poem for *Samer

Recently I read The Raqqa Diaries: Escape from ‘Islamic State’ by *Samer.  Horrified and often driven to tears as I read, I felt inspired to write a poem, which is not something I do very often.  In fact, not something I have done since obliged to do for my MA in Creative Writing at Hull University two years ago.  So I certainly don’t profess to be accomplished by any means at writing poetry, more that it is a stream of thoughts on a page.

The Raqqa Diaries are Samer’s (a pseudonym) personal diary entries describing the daily horrors of living in and then escaping from the ISIS controlled city of Raqqa, in eastern Syria.  The book ‘should be considered compulsory reading for all who care about the horror of Syria’ says John Humphreys and an extract appeared in the Guardian in February.

Your city raped, your country ravaged,
by hatred so deep
by horror so bloody.
Evil in every corner.

The head of your friend sits
on a stick.  His body
on a cross. Crucified
outside his family home.

Outside my home, birds sing.
Dogs sniff the morning air
and sit in the sun.
The same sun, the same blue sky.

How such horror continues
as I mow the grass and weed,
never will I understand.
So underserving of space in our world.

My daily toil so far removed
from your struggle for survival.
You burn books to boil water
to make a cup of tea.

Desperation, sadness, fear pour
down your cheeks.
Lost in the madness and rubble.
Tyranny rules where you live.

Paranoia around every corner,
Suspicion behind every door.
Desperate eyes search in darkness
for sparks of hope.

Worry fills your mother’s eyes,
Goodbyes exchanged.
Treacherous journey taken
To new space, old friends, same plans.

Impotent, hindered by distance.
Prayers and hope my only weapon,
that love will conquer,
that together you can rebuild.

What cheese would you use to tempt a bear down from a tree?

Last Saturday, as part of the WOW Festival in Hull, I attended a comedy writing workshop hosted by Lucy Beaumont.  Lucy is a comedienne and was the winner of the BBC New Comedy Award in 2012 and nominated for Best Newcomer in 2014 Fosters Comedy Award.  She has run many workshops over the years and her passion for sharing her ideas and encouragement for new writers of comedy is strong.

First, she was keen to get across that there is comedy in everyone.  YoDeath_drawing_plainu don’t have to perform in a sketch show or be a stand-up comedian; comedy is used by us all, mainly as a coping mechanism, so that we don’t fear death.  This idea confounded me.  Really?  Are we really laughing because we fear death?  I still struggle to get my head around that, probably because it is a subconscious act.

Laughter is a natural response.  We know this because babies laugh, which tells us that people since the beginning of time have always laughed.  It is part of life and it is important.  The world is a dark place and laughter can provide a release from the pain and torment that we see and feel.  It has been proven to benefit our physical health as well as our mental well-being.

We formed an eclectic bunch on Saturday: actresses, performers, writers, producers, an engineer, a primary school teacher, a taxi driver, an artist, a social worker and a journalist – all of us wanting in some way to bring a bit of laughter into our and others’ lives.  We started by analysing a simple joke.  So,

What cheese would you use to tempt a bear down from a tree?3129403055_5cd4b41ca8_b

We are hard wired to think logically and automatically try to make sense of the situation put to us.  The comic is relying on us listening to think of a logical answer to the question.  This is the set-up.  Our thought processes before we hear the answer is the bridge, the delay before we discover the punch-line:

Camembert

Writers are professional observers of life and we use our observations in our writing.  Make the most of this.  A couple of attendees revealed funny moments that they had experienced recently.

A young sleep-deprived mother was walking her baby in the pram and a neighbour commented ‘Big lad!’  She, in her fatigue, heard ‘Be glad’ (her baby was sleeping).  She replied, ‘I am.’  Moments later she realised her mistake and hasn’t been able to look her neighbour in the eye since.  Simple misunderstandings like these can provide valuable material.

Another lady reported that she was on the phone with her sister the other day and telling her that she thought her daughter had a boyfriend, simply because he had bought her a pot noodle.  Her sister’s response was, ‘Oh, what flavour?’  Alternative responses like these are surprising and make us laugh.  As writers, we can flip situations and create an alternative outcome.

Comedy can also be used as a personal tool to deal with anger.  Another attendee reported that she was astounded recently by her village getting together to create a supply of tea-towels for children to buy for Mothers’ Day (because every mother wants to be drying the dishes on her day of rest).  She was incensed by this, as were we on hearing it, but she made us laugh.  Comedy can also provide an opportunity to educate people, to advance people’s views.

Many comedians use self-deprecation to create laughs, thus making others feel comfortable.  This highlights the fact that when writing, a character must be flawed in order to make them funny.  Amando Iannucci shows this brilliantly in this DIY disaster clip.  We see the horrific results of a man putting on a front, we laugh at the absurdity of it and then we are silenced by the serious, tragic message at the end.

For those of us writing about dark subject matter or stories set up in dystopic worlds, comedy can bring relief to a dark situation.  There is not enough dark humour in the market and one of the main reasons perhaps, why David Walliams’ books, have been such a success, plus Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.

 As a writer, if you are stuck, a good starting point is to start with the surreal, something bizarre.  The surreal but ordinary Alan Partridge is a good example of this, a5435689277_822b8472b8s is Dadaism in the art world.  In children’s literature, the first one that comes to mind is of course, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

Having just started my third novel and delving into the dark world of anorexia, I now feel inspired to lighten my protagonist’s world with elements of comedy.  I hope, after reading this, that the writers amongst you will find inspiration from the highlighted sections here.

Why it really is a Happy New Year

January has got to be the most depressing month of the year.  You’ve celebrated Christmas with loved ones, enjoyed some extra time off work when everyday felt like Sunday and seen in the New Year.  But now you face a month or two of back to work routine with no doubt larger debts, feeling like the sun has packed its bags and buggered off to Australia: January sure is dark, dreary and dull. And on top of all that, there’s those dastardly New Year’s Resolutions – if it wasn’t hard enough!  Why do we add the extra pressure, forcing ourselves to go ‘dry’ for a month, counting every morsel of food that passes our lips to pay dividends to the lbs laid on through the festivities?

But, not this year, not if you live in or near Hull.  We have other more exciting things to think about.  If you didn’t know it, Hull is The City Of Culture for 2017.

And we saw 2017 start #inwithabang.

c1hy1uexeaexnso-jpg-large
@tomadamsonphoto

At 20:17 on Sunday 1st January the city’s skies were lit with over 3 tonnes of fireworks shooting up from two barges on the Humber.  Thousands of faces across Hull, from the villages on the outskirts of the city to the shores of Lincolnshire, were also lit with excitement and wonder at the fantastic display.

 

15874928_1397199463636984_5521894002974070594_o

But, there weren’t just fireworks.  Buildings across the city were lit with stories of Hull’s history, streets were lined with tales of the city’s people, who they are and what they’ve lived through, and the night air was filled with music, laughter and delicious aromas wafting across from the various food stalls, cafes and restaurants.

I am a born and bred southerner (Brighton to be precise), but Hull has been my home city for longer than I lived down south now and I am proud to call it my home.  I am so excited for the year ahead!

So, if you’re wondering what to do with your holidays this year or fancy a few nights away to break up the dreariness of the new year, why not try Hull?  Here’s just a flavour of what’s on offer this year:

  • The Made in Hull installations and projections are free, suitable for all ages and are on display from 4 – 9pm until Saturday 7 January.  Click here for a recording by Adam Reeve of the We Are Hull story.
  • Hull Truck Theatre promises us a year of exceptional drama, with the world premiere production of Richard Bean’s The Hypocrite starting from Friday 24 February.
  • Discover the genius behind the drawings of some of art’s most prominent masters with the Lines of Thought display at Hull University.
  • The Ferens Art Gallery is due to reopen soon after refurbishment and from September will be hosting the Turner Prize 2017.

Check out here for up-coming events on the City of Culture website.

Stepping Outside of your Comfort Zone

What is your comfort zone?  According to Alan Henry, Editor-in-Chief at Lifehacker.com ‘Simply, your comfort zone is a behavioural space where your activities and behaviours fit a routine and pattern that minimises stress and risk. It provides a state of mental security. You benefit in obvious ways: regular happiness, low anxiety, and reduced stress.’

If you were to attend a conference or talk, where is your comfort zone?

I attended the SCBWI Conference this weekend and mine is sat amongst the audience, soaking up the speaker’s wise words, taking down any relevant points in my current notebook of choice.  Even if it comes to offering up ideas of my own, I will sit back and let others (obviously more intelligent and possessed of a far superior imagination than mine) offer up theirs.  At school that zone was sat head down avoiding the teacher’s gaze for fear of being asked a question.  As for doing a presentation in front of the class, with everyone’s eyes pinned on me listening to the garbled mess that came out of my mouth, that was my worst nightmare.

But… this weekend I took a giant step outside of that zone.

behold-the-turtle-he-makes-progress-only-when-he-sticks-his-neck-out-step-out-of-your-comfort-zone

Maybe it’s something to do with age; as you get older you care less about what people think, you spend more time pleasing yourself instead of others.  So, I took a step, moved out of the audience and utimon-s-scared-face-timon-25886614-640-380p onto the stage to pitch my novel to about 200 conference delegates and a panel of literary agents.

My heart pounded, my head whirled and my mouth was as dry as the Kalahari Desert.  I had memorised my pitch of about four minutes: I had practised many times in front of the dogs at home, who unfortunately slept throughout and didn’t offer any feedback.  Yet this didn’t stop the couple of annoying blank moments while on stage.  But I was determined not to lose my calm and somehow managed to maintain my composure to regain my flow.  I also managed to find answers to the agents’ questions.  After all I am the one who knows the most about my book.  And there lies the key in presenting ideas to others – it always helps to know what you are talking about.

I was one of five to pitch and each of us had very different stories on offer – including Young Adult, Middle Grade and a picture book – offering our very different talents to the children’s book market.  Unfortunately for me, the agents were more tempted by the funny MG novel Monsters MIA (Missing in Action) by Justin Davies.  Yet, the wonderful comments and encouraging feedback offered by the SCBWI audience to me after the event were more than enough to lift my disappointment.  This continued through the weekend and has buoyed me on to continue with submissions.

img_1169
Me (the Nat in the Hat) and my fellow SCBWI Hook contestants

026ec03dca23ad50fbf92fc9fd240c32So my message here is to take that step, if only occasionally, out of your comfort zone, for that surely is the only way you make progress and learn.  As the short TED talk on the Steps to Success by Richard St John explains, by pushing ourselves we gradually erase that self-doubt which if you let it, will keep you forever inside that cosy place which requires little effort and yields only barely acceptable results.

As for me, I might not yet brim with confidence, perhaps I never will, but I won’t let that stop me.  Taking part in The Hook at #scbwicon16 was an amazing experience and one I would definitely recommend to other SCBWI’s for next year’s conference.

P.S. For those of you who congratulated me on my pitch and professed an interest in my book – watch this space… (as in, this blog).a80dc69abd484b14602cd3d91a717cbf

NaNoWriMo, Pumpkin Soup & Mince Pies

I think I first heard of this Nano thingy last year – I had trouble saying it, let alone consider taking part.  It just seemed totally daunting – writing a novel is hard enough, but doing it in a month!  No way.

But this year has seen me connect with many more writers, mostly through the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and some are tackling the Nano thing again this year.  So I thought why not?  I’ve finished with the manuscript I started for my MA (for now anyway) and rather than sit checking my inbox every half hour for agents’ responses, I thought it’s the perfect opportunity to start with the idea that’s been rattling around in my head for the last month or so.

So I signed up but calculated that with weekends away and visitors at the end of the month, I’m only left with 19 days, which means over 2,600 words a day.  Ok, I know that’s not realistically feasible, especially as research is again essential to my story.  However, I concluded that I need to start somewhere and if this month sees me getting the next novel off the ground then that’s got to be a positive hasn’t it?

But then life intervenes and those 19 days will still be full of the mundane – today I had food shopping to do.  Along with two dog walks, laundry and cleaning up after said dogs and a school run.  But I hear you cry, ‘What about those of us with a paid job as well?’  Well you no doubt fall into the very admirable group that get up at the crack of dawn to write, unfortunately for me it takes me a good hour and a mug of tea to come around – but that’s something I can work on.  So along with the food shopping etc, I have written 733 words today and that’s 733 words that probably wouldn’t have been written if it hadn’t been for Nano whatsit.  And … because a kind friend donated 2kg of pumpkin to me this week I have actually made pumpkin soup in between.  And … because it’s that time of year and the five jars of mincemeat that I made over the weekend are sat on the worktop and there was left over pastry in the fridge, I’ve also made the first of many batches of mince pies.  So all in all I think it’s been a productive day.  Ok so I haven’t completed over 2,600 words or even the daily amount that Nanowrimo demands (1,666), but as I said it’s 733 more words than would have been written otherwise.  In total 1330 words so far – at least I’ve got the ball rolling.

Now, I think it’s time for another cuppa and one of those mince pies…

A Large Globule of Snot

Moonfruit has decided I am no longer allowed to keep my free website and so my domain and many previous blogs (ok so it was only 4, possibly 5 posts) are now floating in the internet wilderness.  Moonfruit’s loss *shrugs shoulders* and WordPress’s gain.

Welcome, anyway, to my spangly new website (being a newbie, I would welcome any suggestions for improvement, still finding my feet with Worpress).  This new venture finds me at an exciting and somewhat daunting position.  I am standing on a precipice with which every writer out there will resonate.  My manuscript is complprecipiceete (as far as I can tell, following numerous edits, rewrites and many submissions to critique groups) and is out lying on a few slushpiles.  With each rejection I see the ground below welcoming me with concrete arms and with each flickering of interest or positive feedback I am pulled back to terrafirmer by the rope of hope.  And amongst all this my mind is a whirl with new stories, new characters and new adventures.

Of course, I knew with my next story the setting would be much closer to home, unlike the 9,000 mile distance I set for the last novel.  South Africa is such a beautiful country, one I would love to visit someday, but it would be refreshing not to have to rely so much just on the information beneath my fingers.  So Hull it is and what a wealth of history lies beneath the skies of East Yorkshire and its coastline.  The fishing industry and its past, its families, the tragedies and the characters.  I can’t wait to get stuck into the research and of course, being this much closer to home, I might be able to meet some of those characters.  Those ordinary people who lived their not so ordinary lives, either out there riding the trepid waves of the North Sea or back home, perhaps somewhere off Hessle Road, wondering when or if they would see their husband, brother or son again, trying to raise the family single handed off the meagre wages left behind after the last trip.  A subject so close to the heart of Hull and its people.

And I come to the title of this piece.  It always amazes me how some ideas pop unwittingly into our heads, often with me, while out walking the dogs.  And this is what happened the other day.  It was a beautiful autumnal morning, the sun was shining low and bright, the dogs happily trotting beside me.  A Range Rover had poked its head out from a row of parked cars, waiting to join the stream of traffic going through the village.  At the wheel sat an old man, complete with peak cap and (probably) Barbour jacket.  At the end of his nose hung a large globule of snot, glistening and patiently waiting for a hanky or sleeve.  It was this that caught my eye in the split second of glancing as I passed by.  It struck me that something, usually regarded with utter disgust, could also be beautiful, if just for a moment, reflecting the sunlight of a beautiful autumn morning.  And there it was; I had set the scene for the first chapter of my next novel.  I’m sure many an old man could be found working at the dockside, in the early hours of a cold winter’s day, too busy to wipe his nose, too consumed by tide times, the demands of the skipper and no doubt the responsibilities he had left at home.docks

And this is how a writer’s mind works.  It is those intricacies of everyday life that flicker a moment of interest and intrigue.  The tiny details that make a story complete and enable the reader to suspend that disbelief, to paint a picture in their mind, to bring the story alive.  And all it took (this time) was a large globule of snot.